You may remember all of those emotions that came along with the Olympic Games. Victories and losses, tears of joy and tears of sadness. Well, that ended about two months ago. What stayed is the thought of a great event that only takes place every four years and everyone who gets to be a part of that is one lucky person. A couple of days ago I had the pleasure and the honor to meet with Courtney Thompson (silver medalist from London, member of the U.S. national volleyball team, currently playing for a Polish top league team, Budowlani Lodz) and she told me all about her Olympic experience. You can read the first part of that conversation below. Enjoy!
Let’s start from the Olympics. As a team you play a lot of games against Brazil. Isn’t that boring in a way? How can you prepare for a game against a team you know so well? Is it like: the day before the coach says ‘Ok, we play Brazil tomorrow, so you know what to do’?
(laughs) No. They’re still one of my favourite teams to play every time. It’s fun, because it’s always a challenge and it’s always a great match up. We know that they’re gonna be competing hard and we’re gonna bring everything we have. When you play a great opponent like Brazil is, the margins are so thin. Everything you do, every ball you touch, every decision you make is really important. As an athlete that’s what you live for. You train for that and that’s what makes it really exciting. I look forward to it whether we play against them once a year or ten times a year.
And almost every game between USA and Brazil is a five-setter, so it’s really close.
Right, right. It’s really tight every time. And it’s fine, it’s good volleyball. It’s fun to play at a high level.
Did you have any time during the Olympics to meet players from other volleyball teams?
Yeah, I did. We’re always in the village, so you see them at meals all the time, in the waiting room, walking here and there. All the teams are really friendly. We play each other all year long and a lot of the girls play volleyball overseas, so they’ve been friends. We can laugh and joke around and keep it separate from the court.
The Olympic Village is this mysterious area, no one really knows what happens there. And I have read an interview with the U.S. women’s national football team goalkeeper, Hope Solo, in which she says, that a lot of crazy stuff happen there. Can you say the same thing about London that is usually said about Las Vegas: what happens there, stays there?
(laughs) Oh, I don’t know about that, but it surely is an interesting dynamic of a group of people that are incredibly motivated and talented. To be there, it’s really inspiring and cool. At the Olympics everything is magnified by thousands: you’re excitement is magnified, you’re nerves are magnified, you’re good and negative emotions are magnified. I don’t know, it’s just interesting to see people under pressure and I think people do some crazy things when they’re under pressure. We were in the village for 21 days. It’s a lot of time. But for us, we competed the whole two weeks, so it was a little bit different experience I think, than for some people. We had to stay focused the whole time, so we weren’t too distracted by all the crazy stuff going on. But also, you know, when athletes train their whole lives and their event can be over in one day, so then they stay in the village for two weeks. All of a sudden they have this whole sense of freedom, which I think is also another interesting part. We had to stay really focused though.
What did you get personally from this whole Olympic Games experience?
It’s hard to articulate, hard to answer that, because there’s so much to it. It’s a pretty crazy feeling to know that you worked your whole life and in your sport it’s as high as it gets. It’s what everybody who played volleyball dreams of. That’s a very humbling thing to feel. It gives me chills even thinking about it. One of the coolest parts too is that it’s so much bigger than you and your team. [It’s great] to play for something you love that much in your country, to represent where you come from and every single person that’s been a part of your journey and then to be able to go into battle with your teammates who you’ve grown really close to and love. And you get to put on the USA [national colors] and compete in something that you love to do. It just doesn’t get any better. For me, getting to share that experience with my family and friend… it’s just unbelievable, it’s the coolest thing I can think of.
It’s also very interesting, that the Olympians have quite different experience than the rest of the world. The Olympics are usually controversial. Like four years ago, a lot of people were making jokes about the Games taking place in Beijing, and those jokes were connected with the regime, political system etc. I guess it’s always like this: half of the world loves to watch the Olympics, gets really excited about it and the other half is always trying to find reasons to hate it.
Yeah, I think there are a lot of things that people don’t like about Olympics. Maybe the process or for example our opening/closing ceremony outfits that were made in China or whatever. When a lot of people watch, there’s gonna be people that bring a lot of negativity. But I think that even those people can appreciate the spirit of the Olympics when it comes down to athletes doing everything they can and putting it all out there. I don’t think a lot of people don’t like that part of the Olympics. For me that’s what it’s all about. That’s kind of what I hang on to and think about. Of course, like everything in life, it’s not perfect.
Have you ever been to London before the Olympic Games?
I have been once. My brother was a road scholar and went to Oxford for two years. I went over to visit him. We spent a day or two in London, which was great. It was cool to go back and he was there at the Olympics.
You know, to be honest I was kind of nervous before our interview, because of you being the silver medalist and as a fan of sports I really admire what you do.
Are you serious? (laughs) It’s weird for me too, it doesn’t feel like that.
You don’t walk around with your silver medal I guess.
Yeah, or hang it in my car. (laughs) It’s really strange. The other thing that is weird about the Olympics is that you were watching it since you were little and they (the athletes) were all like superhuman. And all of a sudden [you’re one of them]. It’s changed a little bit when you’ve been with the national team, because some of my best friends are Olympians and you know, they’re normal and they struggle like everyone. But then you get into the village and you see Michael Phelps, all these track guys, Hope Solo, Lolo Jones and all the other people. And also you’re there. It’s awesome as it is. Once you start playing it’s just a volleyball tournament — absolutely different and all the same, all in one. That’s a weird feeling too. I think one of the coolest things was to feel like: ‘I’m ready and I belong here. Oh, and PS, You’re at the Olympics!’ (laughs). You have this moments, when you don’t believe it, but the next second is ‘Yeah, of course, I’m ready, this is what I worked for’. It’s a really weird balance, especially now when people say [different] stuff. Like, my teammates make a joke about [makes an impression] ‘Oh, bring a silver medal!’ And I’m obviously the same person.
And you also get a lot of attention from the media and it’s funny because it’s like: after the Olympics everyone suddenly remembers that you’re there and you’re a great athlete.
I’ve been telling my brother about it. Especially for me it’s weird, because I haven’t travelled with our top team in a long time. And I’m not playing in Italy. I was in Puerto Rico — no one knows what’s happening down there, which is fine actually. And all of a sudden you make the Olympic roster. We won silver and that month when I came home was just crazy and cool. It’s something you look forward too, a lot of opportunities to give back and share your experience. You get to share what you love to do with everybody you know and people, that you don’t even know. It was cool to get all the letters, for example from my kindergarten teacher, someone that I knew when I was in pre-school. It was like ‘Oh my gosh, I saw you on tv!’ It was really overwhelming in the best of ways. I remember one of the nights before we started the games. I was in our dorms, I logged in to Facebook and I was reading all of the notes. It was just tons and tons of people! I started crying and got very emotional (laughs). When I got home and my brother went to the grocery store, people were like ‘Hey, USA!’ I’m at Starbucks and people are buying me coffee! You kind of feel like an inventor who’s been in a garage for four years. All of a sudden your invention gets announced and everyone knows you, but all you want to do is to be back in the garage (laughs). It’s interesting talking to my teammates, for whom going to the Olympics was a first time too. You can’t figure out how you want to use that.
So you are recognizable in the U.S., but I guess here not so much.
No. Well, in the U.S. it’s only in my hometown or only in a volleyball place. Before I joined the national team, even in college, I couldn’t tell who’s on the national team. Volleyball has grown a lot, but it’s not there yet. But it’s cool to talk about the Olympics, because I’m still trying to process everything and it’s a lot to take in.
When you play so many tournaments as the U.S. volleyball team, you always travel a lot, but I guess there are still some places that you have never been before. Of course I don’t mean vacation or anything like that, but playing volleyball there. What are those places in your case?
I haven’t played in Italy. It’s surprising, I know, and I would love to play there. I’ve only been there once actually. Also Japan. And my teammates love travelling there.
Japanese people are always so psyched about women’s volleyball, so it’s understandable.
Yeah and they’re very supportive of USA, which is cool. Anyway, those two places are the first that come to my mind. I can’t think of anywhere else I haven’t played.
— End of the first part —